Coronavirus panic has arrived in Pettis County. I knew the moment I walked into Walgreens the other day. They are all out of surgical masks.

True, a brand-new virus with the ability to kill people is worth worrying about. A pandemic that will affect the economy is reasonable cause for concern. But how much should we worry? How can we keep ourselves safe in the days to come?

Right now, here in Missouri, panic and fear pose a greater danger to our health than COVID-19.

Panic is the opposite of healthy and reasonable preparedness for crisis. The National Institutes of Health reports that panic disorder is associated with everything from asthma to drug abuse to death from heart disease. Even one panic attack can cause palpitations, dizziness, chills, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath — symptoms not that different from coronavirus itself. Panic is also a root cause of unwise decision-making. As author Simcha Fisher puts it,

“Irrational fear is bad for us, directly, immediately … At the height of the anthrax scare, when my husband travelled a lot and I was alone in our apartment with three very young children, I barely dared to venture into the fenced back yard. Shopping for groceries, going to the library, or stopping at McDonald’s for fries were all perilous nightmares … Fear made me anxious and irritable and on the verge of hysteria at all times ...it made me exhausted, and it led to bad decisions — yes, even bad decisions about how to keep my kids safe.”

To mitigate unhealthy panic and discern whether our management of the coronavirus threat is rational, we must flex some psychological muscles our society hasn’t used in a long time. We must exercise the virtue of prudence.

Prudence is such a little-used concept that we are apt to think of it in one context only: “She is such a prude.” But real prudence doesn’t mean being sour or unwilling to show our stuff. The definition of prudence is “the ability to govern oneself by the use of reason.” Philosopher-saint Thomas Aquinas described the integral parts of prudence many centuries ago, but they are applicable to every situation, even an entirely modern crisis:

• Memory or experience: All but the youngest of us have lived through virus outbreaks. We had Hong Kong flu in 1968, swine flu in the early 2000s, and bird flu in the 2010s. Our elders still remember American epidemics of polio. Our survival of historical diseases (many of them much graver than COVID-19) can give us a foundation for how to proceed with coronavirus. Talk to your parents and grandparents. Ask them how they managed in ‘52 or ‘68 or even 2009. They will have wise and measured advice.

• Understanding: We all need a firm grasp on what coronavirus actually is and what preventative measures are useful. We cannot get this information from rumors, Facebook memes or TV talking heads. To get informed, go to the Centers for Disease Control’s excellent website and search “COVID-19.”

• Docility: Docile means “easily taught.” Docility is a willingness to consider evidence, recognition of the limits of our own opinions and deference to experts. So be humble. Read much, listen well, and avoid trumpeting your predictions, unless you happen to be a public health professional.

• Shrewdness: To be shrewd means to be sharp, able to take in information quickly and use it to your benefit. So keep eyes and ears open to what’s going on around you and notice your circumstances (especially in public). Don’t sit within arm’s length of someone who is hacking up a lung. Don’t eat at a restaurant that has less-than-stellar hygiene.

• Reason: Common sense and logic will keep you safe without making you crazy. On one hand, avoid decision-making when you know your emotions might get the best of you (scared, angry, sad, exhausted). On the other hand, don’t lick any doorknobs.

• Foresight: It can be tough to look into the future without letting imagination run away with you. But it’s reasonable to prepare your family for troubles like drug shortages and short quarantines. So stock up on OTC meds, canned goods and disinfectant. Just don’t break the bank or buy so much it will go to waste.

• Circumspection: This $5 word simply means being alert and careful. Keep your house clean, cover your mouth when you cough, carry hand sanitizer, but above all, wash your hands. It’s the most effective way to avoid spreading any virus, including COVID-19.

• Caution: Caution is the sum of the many parts above. It’s reasonable suspicion, common sense, awareness, and the ability to listen to the gut feelings God gave us. Caution is what keeps us home when we have a fever, sends us to the doctor if we’re really ill, and warns us that it’s not a great idea to go running into the heart of danger.

St. Francis de Sales, another intellectual powerhouse, once said, “Anxiety is the greatest evil that can befall a soul, except sin.” This was not a condemnation, but a wise observation. The coronavirus could make us sick. But a lack of prudence in our response will make us stupid.

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